Monday, February 14, 2005

More Biology Profs Weigh In

Our local Sunday paper yesterday carried an open letter signed by sixteen biology instructors at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and directed to the school board of Dover Area School District. The letter urged the board to reconsider their plans to incorporate into the biology curriculum a statement recognizing Intelligent Design as an alternative to Darwinian evolution. The letter contained a number of assertions that should be clarified or corrected. The Shippensburg biologists write, for example, that:

With this change in the curriculum, instead of science, students are given fringe beliefs and unsubstantiated speculations.

That living things are designed is hardly a fringe belief in our culture. Indeed, it is the view that life is the product of undirected, mindless forces that is the "fringe" belief if anything is. Perhaps the professors meant to say that belief that organisms are purposefully designed is a fringe belief among scientists, but if so, even this claim is exaggerated. It may be true that it is a minority view among scientists, but that hardly makes it a "fringe" belief unless one defines "fringe" as any view held by less than 50% of a population.

The concept of ID is not scientific. ID cannot be investigated using the scientific method.

The crux of the controversy between proponents of ID and proponents of Darwinian evolution is this question: How can we best explain the multifarious design that we find at every level of biological organization? Is it best explained as a product of nothing other than blind, unguided, purposeless forces or as the product of natural processes plus intentional agency? This is the central question, but it cannot be answered by peering into a microscope. It is not the sort of question that is amenable to empirical investigation. Thus neither answer to the question is scientific. They both fall into the category of metaphysics. Why then should the first be acceptable in a science classroom but the second regarded as illicit? Either they should both be admitted (my view) or they should both be prohibited.

ID is not based on objective evidence.

Intelligent Design is based on evidence available to anyone who wishes to examine it. It's based on the same evidence that led a materialistic, atheistic biologist like Richard Dawkins to exclaim that nature gives "the appearance of having been designed for a purpose". It is not the evidence, however, that is relevant in this controversy. The relevant question concerns which interpretations or explanations of that evidence are to be permitted, and which are to be excluded, in public school classrooms.

ID is a veiled strategy to teach religion instead of science.

This is a confusion based upon a misconception. Some ID proponents have indeed stated that ID leads to the conclusion that there is a God, but such a conclusion, even if true, no more constitutes teaching religion than does reciting the pledge of allegiance every school day. The conclusion that there is more to reality than mere nature is not in itself a religious claim and affirming the possibility of its truth is hardly an instance of teaching religion. It would only constitute "teaching religion" if the teacher were to advocate some sort of human obligation or responsibility to the intelligent designer, and if they did that they should be reprimanded.

ID cannot be falsified through experimentation or realistic predictions...Science is based upon...the scientific method [which] requires falsifiable hypotheses and objective and accepted testing methodology.

That there is any such thing as a "scientific method" is very much in dispute among contemporary philosophers of science, but even if the above claim is accurate, and even if it is true that ID is not subject to falsification (which is also in dispute), the problem is that Darwinian versions of evolution fall victim to the same requirement. As suggested above, the central claim of Darwinism is that the design of life's structures and systems is the product solely of random, unguided, purposeless processes, or, alternatively, there is no purposive, intelligent force responsible in any way for the emergence of living things. This claim is no more easily falsified than is the central claim of ID. If ID is to be excluded from science classes because it is not falsifiable, then this fundamental postulate of Darwinisn should be accorded similar treatment.

The concept of ID implies a...supreme being,[an] all mighty deity.

Despite the hopes of some and the fears of others, this is simply not correct. ID implies only that one of the causes of life on earth is intelligence. The intelligence could be an alien life form that arose under completely different conditions than living things on earth experienced. To assume that the designer of life must be a "supreme being" or an "all mighty" deity is to stretch ID beyond its theoretical limits.

If scientists ever succeed in creating living organisms from scratch in a laboratory no one would suggest that it would follow from that accomplishment that those scientists are "supreme beings", regardless of what the scientists may think of themselves. The most we could say is that the creators of life were a species of intelligent being which itself developed in a different set of circumstances and in a different physico-chemical environment than did the nascent life forms in the lab.

The Shippensburg biologists close their letter with the exhortation to Let science be science, but this is not as easy as it sounds. It belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of philosophy in science. The two are very nearly inseparable. If science teachers cannot introduce philosophical concepts into their classrooms then they cannot talk about the nature of the scientific enterprise, the scientific method, the principle of cause and effect, the principle of sufficient cause, the principle of uniformity, the law of parsimony, the criteria of a good scientific theory, and the laws of logic. Indeed, if we are to banish all philosophical thinking from the science class then we must also exclude the falsifiability criterion itself since it is not falsifiable. All of these concepts, and much more that might come up in an intellectually vivacious science class, (some of the claims of string theory and speculations about other universes come to mind) are philosophical topics.

Eliminating philosophy from science classrooms is neither possible nor desirable. As soon as we start talking about interpreting data and explaining facts we find ourselves awash in philosophical assumptions and predilections. If it were possible to eliminate philosophy from the science classroom doing so would only create a sterile and stifling learning environment for students.

In light of this it's strange that all manner of philosophy is admitted into our classrooms without raising alarm, yet the simple philosophical hypothesis that there might be an intelligence responsible for the complex structures which comprise the biosphere sends half the population into a panic. Very strange.

More on Vioxx

Recent news on the status of Vioxx and other Cox-2 inhibitors is here. It is our hope that these drugs are put back on the market unless the risk of heart attack turns out to be very high. It is not clear at this point that it is.

There are a lot of people in terrible pain who would surely be willing to accept a moderately elevated risk of heart trouble in the future in order to live whatever days they have left in relative comfort. Perhaps it will be determined that there are ways to mitigate the risk.

In any event, it is unfortunate that these drugs are no longer available to those who find the possibility of a distant heart attack much more acceptable than the certain prospect of immediate chronic pain and who are prepared to live with the hazard.

Jordan's End

For those of you who have been following the Eason Jordan imbroglio (not Jordan Eason as some dyslexic blogger who shall remain nameless had it on this site last week) and wondering perhaps whether his offense should really have caused him to resign at CNN, PowerLine lays out Jordan's options and shows succinctly that he didn't leave CNN much choice but to force the issue, if, in fact, that's what they did:

Now that Eason Jordan has resigned, folks are eager to defend him instead of trying to ignore his situation. The defense comes in two forms: first, that he made a mistake but that the mistake should not have cost him his job; second, that he is the victim of McCarthyism, sacked for expressing unpopular views.

The answer to both defenses is essentially the same. Once strong evidence emerged that Jordan had accused the U.S. military of systematically murdering journalists, his legitimate options were the following: (1) he could try to show, through the tape of his remarks, that he made no such accusation, (2) he could present evidence to support his charge, (3) he could retract his charge and apologize, or (4) he could modify his charge and present evidence to support the new charge.

Jordan opted for none of the above. At that point, the question became whether CNN would be led by a monger of vicious and unsupported anti-American rumors. CNN, hoping to remain distinct from Al Jazeera at least for the time being, apparently answered that question in the negative. Where's the injustice to Jordan in this scenario?

Of course, this assumes that Jordan's resignation was demanded by CNN. If it was purely voluntary, which we doubt, then the decision to resign was his and there is no question of injustice done him by CNN or anyone else.